60 seconds with… Jonson Cox

Chair of the board

3 min read

Jonson Cox is Chair of Ofwat, the body responsible for the economic regulation of water in England and Wales. Jonson is also Chairman of the Harworth Group plc and has been Executive Chairman of UK Coal plc, a Non-Executive Director at Wincanton and Chief Executive of Anglian Water Group plc.

What would you change to improve the effectiveness of UK boards?

Boards can lose focus if their agenda is too long. If there is a lot on the agenda, I’ll let the board know beforehand where I plan to spend the majority of the time, which gives us a chance to see if we have a common view of the priorities for the meeting.

I also like to start my board meetings by asking our CEO: “What’s on your mind and what do you want from the meeting?”

Finally, you need the right people for the job at hand. I’m probably not a ‘steady-state’ Chairman – much of my experience has been in turnarounds and leading organisations through significant change. The experience, skills and composition of the board need to be appropriate to the challenge.

If you find you have the wrong people on your board, what can you do?

All boards can benefit from a refresh but sometimes it takes a crisis to prompt a radical overhaul. That said, immediate, wholesale change is a difficult thing to do.

When there’s a crisis no one wants to be seen to be stepping down from the board, as it’s natural to want to help resolve the crisis. And if a turnaround is on the cards, you’ll want to be part of that story.

How would you describe the role of the Board Secretary?

A good Board Secretary is essential to a well-run board. They will be close to the Executive Team but they also need to keep a degree of objectivity.

A good Board Secretary will appraise the Chairman of what is on the mind of the Executives to help shape a relevant meeting agenda. And they need to be able to push back on their executive colleagues, for example, if a board paper isn’t up to scratch. It’s not necessarily a role that will win you friends.

What are you most proud of?  

Two things spring to mind. Firstly, our work at UK Coal plc in 2012 where we carried the company through a landmark restructuring. We walked through the ‘valley of the shadow of death’ to enable the coal mines and their workforce to deliver a soft rundown, leading to their eventual close this year. Out of the demise of mining we have spawned Harworth Group – a £350m business which is regenerating the coalfields.

Secondly, I am especially proud of what we’ve achieved at Ofwat over the past three years. We have redefined what it means to hold the water industry to account and have reshaped the sector for the better.

Can you give an example of how you brought about this change at Ofwat?

I knew from experience that effective board leadership would be vital and if we wanted to be a less intrusive regulator then we had to be able to rely on the quality of the boards who govern the companies we are responsible for.

Some of the boards in our sector weren’t constituted in line with either our licence conditions or the UK Corporate Governance Code, which called into question their effectiveness. The risk to society of leaving this to the owners or markets to fix was too great, so we brought in a set of rules as an alternative for those that were not required to follow the UK Corporate Governance Code. This has led to a step change in the quality of board leadership which, in turn, plays a key part in companies gaining our coveted ‘enhanced’ status.

Is there anything that other regulators have introduced which could be relevant to the utilities sector?

The financial regulators require that you undergo a rigorous interview to qualify as a board director. I’ve successfully been through it and it was a constructive experience.

I probably thought I was done with pass or fail assessments like this, but it makes you work. I was much better prepared for the role I was considering thanks to the rigour of the appointment process.

What book is on your bedside table?

I have just returned from my first trip to South Africa which prompted me to read several books about Mandela. I’m just finishing Tomorrow is Another Country by Allister Sparks, which charts the years of behind-the-scenes negotiations between Mandela and de Klerk

What is your golden rule?

I don’t do Golden Rules. They blinker your thinking and I think you should approach every situation without preconceptions.

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